The Thatcher-introduced settlement is now under pressure as never before

Published on Labour List, by Jon Trickett, April 14, 2013.

… The post war settlement introduced by Labour under Attlee was under increasing strain, partly as a consequence of a fiscal crisis brought about by the falling profitability of British capitalism. First Heath and then Wilson and Callaghan sought to maintain the 1945 consensus. By the end of the Callaghan Government Labour’s leaders were exhausted physically and intellectually as brilliantly captured in the play ‘This House’ which is currently showing at the National in London. Britain was trapped in an impasse. Something had to give. Gramsci had described such a moment as an interregnum. In our country, “the past was dying; and the new cannot be born” … //

… Indeed we can now see how Thatcherism contained a systemic design flaw. The certainty of the 2008 crisis was built into the post 1979 system. The ideas of market triumphalism meant that the normal process of government intervening in the economy to protect the wider community interests was suspended.

The country was treated to reduced regulation of an increasingly dominant financial sector without the counterweight of a strong manufacturing sector. And it was the failure properly to regulate finance capitalism which was precisely what was at the heart of the crash.

All elections are in part a contest between continuity and change. But, the next election cannot be about more of the same: a further modification of the existing economic settlement.

As Mary Riddell has suggested in her Daily Telegraph blog reflecting on Mrs Thatcher, the times call for “action rather than the stasis paralysing the politics of 2013”.

What is needed is a rupture with the last thirty years. But the question is which way should this rupture take Britain?

Even a brief glance at the political landscape reveals that the Tories and LibDems have chosen to respond to the crisis by seeking further intensification of all the characteristics of the Thatcher consensus. Thus we see austerity, more marketisation, a further assault on the public domain, growing inequality and so on. If this path prevails, then we can be sure that our economy will flatline for the foreseeable future and that a further crisis is inevitable.

Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are hopelessly compromised by their period in office. The Tory modernisation project has been jettisoned partly due to the threat from Ukip, and the LibDems have irrevocably embraced divisive neo-liberal economic and social reform (e.g. the NHS reforms).

Therefore if there is going to be a government which will usher in a fresh start for Britain united under the Labour Party.

Ed Miliband has shown that he understands the historic task which falls to the Party and his leadership. Last year he said:

“Consent for the old system has broken down…But, anger at the old system’s flaws is not enough to produce change. It needs the ideas and the political movement to transform discontent with the old settlement into consent for the new one.”

Mrs Thatcher fully understood the power of ideas and whilst in office and in opposition she carefully nurtured the growth of a new paradigm. When in office there was a steely determination on her part to bring about change. Thus although there was no single moment of rupture with the Attlee consensus there was a remorseless process change so that by the time she left office our country’s economic and social systems were configured in a way which endured through to the present day.

Labour’s task is no less than to create a vision of a new way of governing Britain. We need to build a movement which is capable of sustaining a One Nation Labour government of a new kind.

We will need steely nerves, inventive imaginations and new ways of communicating and governing. With only two years left, there is much work still to be done.
(full text, links to related articles and many comments).

(Jon Trickett is Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office).

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